In origin, millennium is from the Latin for “thousand”, which is also the source of our word mile (originally a distance in ancient Rome of a thousand paces) and also, rather surprisingly, of million (which was derived first in French by adding the suffix -one to mille, so augmenting it to a thousand thousands).
When the British government recently announced its plans for the Millennium Dome (which will contain, among other things, that Millennium Experience whose name I was so rude about the other week), it was criticised for being an exclusively secular presentation and a group was formed to reclaim the millennium for the Christian Church, with proposals, among others, to ring church bells throughout the country. So it was unexpected to read a report in the Times that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, had remarked in a speech in Manchester last Monday that “there was nothing particularly special” about the millennial date.
The British government is celebrating a calendrical phenomenon, the point at which the date flips over to change all the numbers at once; taken by itself its significance is hardly greater than watching the mileometer on one’s car tick up the next thousand, but the Dome meets that curious need we have to observe such occasions (and neatly avoids those careful thinkers among us, whom some would call pedants, who insist that the millennial anniversary should be observed the following year, on the grounds that there was no year nought).
But even for the irreligious, the date is deeply coloured by its significance for the Christian churches as the two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of Christ, even though modern scholarship is sure this date is several years in error. It’s this fact, I would guess, that was one reason for the sophisticated churchman Dr Carey making what seemed on the surface such a surprising remark. He was probably also thinking of the original meaning of millennium, which was not a date but a period of one thousand years during which Christ would rule on Earth. The belief came from ancient Judaism, turns up in Revelations, and has been an important part of the beliefs of various Christian sects down the centuries, but which is not doctrine in the Church of England.
This eschatological belief was variously known as millennialism, millenarism or millenarianism. If you believed that Christ’s second coming preceded the millennium, you were a premillenarian or premillennialist; if you believed it came at the end of the thousand years of peace and plenty, you were instead a postmillenarian or postmillennialist.
This conviction has led to the common figurative use of millennium to refer to an unspecified date in the future at which things will all come right, as in “come the millennium ...”. Come the millennium, I suspect we are all going to be sick of the word, churchgoers or not.